I have been a music obsessive for as long as I can remember and my earliest obsession (if we politely ignore The Wombles) was ABBA. Despite being little more than a toddler, I apparently plagued my mum to buy me Waterloo and Mamma Mia and at the tender age of five I had the Arrival album on endless repeat on my little yellow record player. I remained a loyal Super Trouper throughout and it should be remembered that to be an ABBA fan in the 70's was not the fast track to coolness it is now. I didn't care about the taunts, I knew that what I was hearing was pure gold. The bliss of the voices of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad, singly or combined, when matched with the songwriting brilliance of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, is etched on my childhood memories and many of my adult ones too.
Both Agnetha and Frida had solo careers before ABBA and came to the group as successful artists in their own right. ABBA devotees usually divide into Agnetha acolytes or Frida fans and I was most definitely an Agnetha boy. Over the years thougth I have grown to appreciate both of these unique voices. Agnetha's is definitely the most accessible, it is lighter in tone and she has the ability to make you feel every last emotion of a lyric when she sings. I still find it almost unbearable to listen to The Winner Takes It All, so heartbreaking is her vocal. Frida's instrument is equally great, but her tone is more edgy and her style more emotionally detached; think of the resigned acceptance of Knowing Me, Knowing You or the hard bitterness of Money, Money, Money. However, it is when they sing together that alchemy occurs. The combination of their voices is one of the crown jewels of music. ABBA's success is undoubtedly a product of the incredible songs that the boys wrote, but their magic is down to the phenomenal singing talents of Agnetha and Frida.
Nothing golden lasts forever and in 1982 I began to hear rumblings that ABBA may be calling it a day. I didn't want to believe it and clung to the fact that their greatest hits album that year was called The Singles: The First Ten Years. See, there had to be a second ten years surely? It was a rude awakening that nothing in pop lasts forever and even Bucks Fizz (the UK's attempt at an ABBA clone) couldn't completely help me move on (give me a break, I was twelve). Only the year before, ABBA had released what was to be their last studio album, The Visitors, and even I realised it had not performed as well as their albums usually did. However, it was many years later before I knew, or could properly understand, what lay behind the end of ABBA. The Visitors is re-released today in a deluxe edition, it remains one of their least heard albums, yet it is in my view their most interesting and diverse work.
The striking cover art of the album has been deconstructed by critics and fans, with the distance between the band members and the lack of eye contact believed to connote the growing separation of the group. It certainly lacks the warmth of previous covers, but given where the band's personal relationships were at this time, that is not surprising. Agnetha and Björn had divorced in 1979 and he had remarried in early 1981. Frida and Benny filed for divorce in February 1981, just weeks before recording began. It is a testament to the professionalism of ABBA that these four people could set aside their personal issues and spend hours together in a recording studio; perhaps it was understandable if they didn't feel like hugging each other on the album cover. For me, the artwork fits the mood of the album perfectly, as the music it contained was, like the band's relationships, more complex and melancholic than what had come before.
At first nothing seemed to have changed. The lead-off single for the album in Europe was the poppy One Of Us, the tale of a woman who had left her man and now deeply regretted it. It kicks off with a gorgeous mandolin intro, with Agnetha, who has the lead vocal, gently vocalising over it. The rest of the song is solid, if a little safe by ABBA standards. One can only imagine how Agnetha felt about singing lines like "just like a child, stubborn and misconceiving". It is almost the reverse take of The Winner Takes It All, where the woman is scorned and defeated; here she brought it all on herself. The single was a sizeable hit, reaching number 3 in the UK.
A better first single in my opinion would have been the album's title track. The intro to The Visitors is foreboding, with synth waves building over a nagging beat. Frida's beautifully dark vocal portrays the paranoia of someone waiting for the secret police to crash through their front door. Her delivery is mechanical and detached, almost robotic, expertly mirroring the dehumanisation of the oppressed victim. The chorus is fast and intense, you share the unease. It is brave and unusual and remarkably political for ABBA. It is also quite brilliant.
The second track on the album was the second single in Europe, Head Over Heels. It is the thoroughly modern tale (for 1981) of the power woman, taking over the world and dragging her emasculated man in her wake. It has a great pizzicato-esque hook and a strong story. It almost has the feel of a musical song, one that introduces and describes a lead character. This was a developing theme for Benny and Björn who were keen to explore writing a musical, a dream that would come to fruition soon after the break-up of ABBA with Chess. The single struggled, I'm sure because it would be hard for a lot of people to identify with the subject matter and, while catchy, it is not the strongest song ABBA have ever written. It was another misstep in my view, as once again a better single was waiting in the wings.
When All Is Said And Done is a lost ABBA classic. It is a celebration of life, love and friendship and manages to be poignant without being sentimental. It is a very adult tale, dealing with the end of a relationship, but looking at the glass half-full, remembering the good times and the fun. ABBA's US label showed their good taste and released it as the first single from the album and it became their final top 40 hit stateside. Frida gives one of her best lead vocal performances, no doubt feeling every word given her personal circumstances. It went over my head as a child, of course, but as the years have passed this song has become one of my treasured friends. With hindsight it clearly suggests this is a group approaching the end of its journey and it stands as a perfect epitaph.
There are three other songs on the album that stand amongst the best of ABBA tracks. The Visitors is unique amongst ABBA albums as each track has a solo lead vocal, with Agnetha and Frida only combining on some choruses or in background vocals. In that way it serves as a reintroduction to their solo careers, to which they would both return in earnest in the years following ABBA's collapse. Agnetha took the lead on Slipping Through My Fingers, the tale of a mother realising that her child is growing up and that this time will soon pass. It has a lovely lyric and truly captures that feeling we have all had when we ask "where does the time go?" It clearly had meaning for Agnetha who again delivers a raw and emotional vocal that has a visceral impact on the listener. Again it feels like it would make a great show tune and, thanks to the ABBA "jukebox" musical Mamma Mia, it eventually became one.
Frida had the lead on I Let The Music Speak, a love letter to the way music can transport you to another place, another emotional state. A lush waltz leads us in before we are hypnotised and led on a mystical journey through the song. The richness of Frida's voice is fully on display, she balances control and drama, like she is in a waking dream. It is ABBA's most melodically inventive song, making demands of the listener, but repaying those efforts fully. It shows that even with the pressures on the group, they were still keen to explore new ideas and take risks at this point in their career.
The final track on the album is another gem. Like An Angel Passing Through My Room is a lullaby for grown-ups. A ticking clock leads us in to the song before a music box begins to tinkle the melody. Frida delivers a crystal clear vocal, at once hopeful but with a subtle touch of melancholy that matches the bittersweet lyrics. The album was one of the first to be recorded and mixed digitally and the resulting clarity benefited many of the tracks, especially The Visitors and this one. You can hear every vibration in Frida's voice, it is a masterclass in singing. The song is gorgeous and wistful and wonderful. The major draw of the album re-release today is the inclusion of a new track, From A Twinkling Star To A Passing Angel, that pulls together early demo versions of this song and shows how radically it changed during the recording. It is a valuable snapshot of just how hard ABBA worked to create the perfect sound and the best version of their songs. They fully succeeded here and as the clock ticks away at the end of the track, little did we know that it was foretelling ABBA's time running out.
ABBA did start work on another album, but it was never completed. A few of the tracks emerged later and two new songs were added to The Singles compilation, but The Visitors stands as the final hurrah of ABBA's extraordinary career. Far from being the sound of a band in a free fall to destruction, The Visitors instead shows us four supreme musical talents at the height of their artistry and creativity. It is completely understandable that the breakdown of their marriages would make working together strained, but it remains a heartfelt regret for me and millions of other ABBA fans that there never was a second ten years of ABBA songs for us to enjoy. But we had those first ten years and for that I am eternally grateful.
If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. The Visitors (Deluxe Edition) is available now on Polar/Universal.